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Turning the tide in Devonport

Shipbuilding - 14 Apr 2021

GMB Regional Organiser Matt Roberts and Roger Darcy, retired long-time Chair of the Industrial Trade Unions at Devonport write about the history and future of Devonport - the largest Naval Base in Western Europe

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Every Monday at 11.30am visitors to Plymouth are unnerved to hear a sound like a Second World War air raid siren reverberating around all corners of this southern working-class city of quarter of a million residents.

This weekly test of the nuclear siren at Devonport Naval Base & Dockyard has long been a feature of the city - it is said that a true 'Janner', or Plymothian, can only be someone born within the reach of its sound - but the reach of the Devonport yard economically stetches far beyond these limits, well into the wider sub-Region and the South West.

Founded in 1691, Devonport is still the largest Naval Base in Western Europe.

In its heyday 20,000 people worked there, 65% of the Royal Navy was refitted there, and no less than 14 trade unions represented different groups of the diverse and skilled workforce.

In 1982, the yard famously took 11 merchant ships and converted them in just days for use in the Falklands War.

Today, 10% of Plymouth's GDP and 400 employers are directly attributable to the yard - the engine room of Plymouth's economy as well as the Royal Navy.

Devonport has produced many of Plymouth's civic leaders including, to name just one, Jimmy Moses, the first working-class dockyard worker in Britain to be elected to Parliament and Plymouth's first Labour MP.

During the Second World War, the yard trade unions famously organised much of the city's defences during the Blitz, with the trade union leaders promising that they would help to look after the families of those who fought in the war, whilst they kept the Navy operational at home.

Over the years, many campaigns have been run by the local trade unions and politicians in defence of the yard and the jobs and benefits it provides to its community.

A recent campaign was successful in securing the prestigious base-porting of the next generation of Type 26 frigates.

This is important and brings prestige, some jobs, and the economic benefit of military families living in the city.

However, there is some naivety regarding the impact this will have on employment levels in Devonport, and the lack of understanding on the differences between the base-porting/Naval Base on the one hand, and the privatised dockyard (run by Babcock) on the other hand.

Surface ship refits provide approximately 50% of employment within the Dockyard and currently Devonport has the capacity to dock any ship within the Navy, apart from the two largest, the enormous HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.

When the final Type 23 frigate completes its engine upgrade, the Frigate Support Centre (FSC) at Devonport will be redundant with no major T23 frigate refits required.

This date will now be brought forward with the loss of a further two T23 frigates in yet more Tory defence cuts.

From press and TV interviews there appears to be an expectation that base-porting will automatically mean that we will refit that vessel at Devonport, but this is not necessarily the case, and we will campaign hard for this.

The policy supported by trade unions to justify nuclear refits at Devonport was in the face of considerable opposition, and we argued that it was cost effective to maintain both surface and nuclear refitting across the dockyard thereby retaining jobs and skill levels.

The campaigns to maintain base porting in Devonport was to sustain both the submarine and surface ship refit work and that assurance was given by successive governments.

It should be questioned if this no longer the case, and we are now at a crossroads. If the government don't support Devonport now, we may find in six years' time there will be no frigates refitted at Devonport, with major implications on jobs.

The effects on the economy of Plymouth and within the wider South West cannot be overstated.

It was only last week we welcomed and met with the Labour Party leader in Plymouth as the party announced its ‘British-built by default’ policy to protect jobs in the defence industry through government spending by favouring British defence manufacturers over buying overseas.

Voting Labour at the next election would help give us some security over a long-term plan for the future of the yard.

The statue of Naval hero 'King Billy' (William IV) at the southern tip of the vast yard has seen many changes over the decades.

GMB will still be campaigning to ensure that he oversees many more frigate refits in the years to come.

We must preserve skilled jobs for local people, in a city with contains some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country.

Co-written by Matt Roberts, Regional Organiser, GMB Union & District Secretary of the Confederation of Shipbuilding & Engineering Unions, and Roger Darcy, Retired long-time Chair of the Industrial Trade Unions at Devonport & GMB Union activist.

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